Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Lessons Learned

If I could go back in time, one of the many things I’d do differently in my writing career is this: I’d keep a Lessons Learned journal.

What kind of Lessons Learned? All those hard-won insights and Ah ha! moments—large and small—that come in the course of writing every book. One might think that knowledge gleaned at the price of so much pain and suffering would never be forgotten, but I am cursed with a lousy memory. Recently, I’ve found myself repeating mistakes I should have remembered from earlier books.

What kind of mistakes? Well, in the initial drafts of my third book, SEPTEMBER MOON, my heroine came off as a starchy English bitch. She really was a likeable character once we got to know, understand, and sympathize with her, but in the first rendition of the manuscript, my editor had a hard time warming to her. Solution? Instead of beginning the book with Amanda’s arrival in the wilds of Outback Australia, I first introduced readers to her at her employer’s deathbed. We learn that she has missed her ship home, stranding herself penniless and friendless in an alien land in order to comfort a dying woman. Result? Instant sympathy! Lesson learned: if you’re going to have a protagonist display potentially unlikable characteristics, make sure to get your readers solidly on the character’s side before you have her start displaying those characteristics.

In the book I’m writing now (in between ripping out walls and laying floors and packing up my mother’s Stuff, etc, etc, etc) my protagonists do a lot of traveling. We follow them on a breakneck race to Berlin, to Kaliningrad, to Turkey, back to three different cities in Germany, to Lebanon, to Israel, back to Russia… Whew! It’s a lot of fun, so what’s the problem here? Well, this book is a thriller. And in today’s market, this kind of thriller needs to be fast-paced with a loudly ticking clock. I had originally planned to have this book play out over four or five days, max. But it takes time to travel to all these different places. In fact, if you find out on Friday night that you need to fly from New Orleans to Kaliningrad, Russia, you won’t be able to get there until SUNDAY morning. My characters take a lot of overnight flights, and I still had to stretch my ticking clock out to eight days, about twice as long as I’d have liked. Lesson learned: if you want a fast-paced, doom-is-breathing-down-your-neck book, limit the wide-ranging international travel.

These are two lessons I suspect I’ll never forget. But all those other little Lessons Learned? I should have written them down.

7 comments:

Chap O'Keefe said...

A useful post, as your accounts of writing experiences invariably are.

We all make/repeat these mistakes, if that's any consolation.

My "songbird" in The Lawman and the Songbird was originally deemed unacceptable by the publisher because she was an insufficiently sympathetic character. Soon put right -- I gave Kate's back story within paragraphs of her introduction in Chapter 2: orphaned, left in care of maiden aunt, no affection, scorned etc. A bit cliché, but effective. Clichés often are; it's possibly why they've become such.

To address your other "mistake". . . As a writer of twenty-some westerns set in the nineteenth century, I always have to be mindful of how long it took to travel/ride from one place to another. And I think I can say it doesn't mean a story can't be fast-paced. For example, the book I've mentioned above takes place, from memory, over a period of more than eight years! You just leave out the bits when nothing's happening, and pick up again when it is. The unity of even a short story doesn't have to depend on a timeframe.

Another of my books with time gaps, and that was also well-received, was Peace at Any Price. The story's origins are in the Civil War, but the action is set largely afterwards.

Steve Malley said...

I may have learned the hardest lesson of all: next time out, I do believe I may try outlining...

Lisa said...

I appreciate hearing the lessons learned. Your description of the actual time to travel around the globe made me laugh -- I was thinking about the TV series "Alias" and how the characters were regularly making decisions to flit from L.A. to Beijing and Moscow and they were always instantaneously there and then home again. I always chalked it up to artistic license ;)

Sphinx Ink said...

Thanks for this perspective on your writing career. Despite hearing you talk about your writing process nearly every week in our writers' group, your final products are so polished and beautifully written I forget how much effort you put into their creation.

"Lesson learned: if you’re going to have a protagonist display potentially unlikable characteristics, make sure to get your readers solidly on the character’s side before you have her start displaying those characteristics." Your point in this post is well-made.

One of the biggest complaints I have--and the biggest reason I stop reading some books after only a few chapters--is novelists' failure to develop characters I can believe in. It's important to me to have some area in which I can identify with, or even "become," the main character. When that's absent, I generally end up putting the book down and never picking it up again.

Your advice would benefit not only aspiring writers, but also other multipublished authors whose work I've attempted but couldn't finish (including some on the bestsellers lists).

liz fenwick said...

Thank you, thank you.......lessons one is very apt for current work!

rubyshoetoo said...

Great post! I once had a friend read chapter 1 and I got alarmed when she started shaking her head halfway through. "Where's the conflict?" she asked. After cursing her on the way home, I rewrote the chapter. Like you, lesson learned about bringing the conflict in sooner to anchor your character in some intriguing mess.

Charles Gramlich said...

I keep a kind of haphazard list of such things in my journal, but I seldom go back and reread it, which doesn't help my memory any. I need to extract such things somehow and put 'em on my wall. Cause I know "I'll" forget.